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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.


For the week of 9/22/2019
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Autumn means falling leaves, and some of the prettiest are the golden fans that fall from the ginkgo tree. The Vernon County Museum has a large old gingko tree on its north side. Many people have said that it is the oldest ginkgo in the county, but we don’t yet have proof of that. Photographs of the building from 100 years ago, when the building was first constructed as a Normal School, show us that the gingko had not yet been planted then.

Another famous, or in this case infamous, tree in this area long ago was “The Fatal Oak”. A ballad by this name was written in 1870 by Abbie J. Payne. The story is that five men from the La Farge area travelled south down the Kickapoo River on a raft in September of 1870. They stopped for the night under an oak tree, probably in southern Crawford County, tying the raft to the tree and then falling asleep on the raft. In the early morning the oak tree suddenly crashed into the river, its roots having been long exposed by the swift current. Two of the men escaped but the other three died “beneath the fatal oak”.

One kind of tree that I occasionally hear about in Vernon County is trail marker trees. These trees are living signposts, most formed at least 175 years ago by American Indians. A sapling would be tied downwards to create an angle that would point in a certain direction, leading the way along a path or towards a significant site. The tree would continue to grow, and the angle would become permanent. It can be difficult to distinguish between a tree with a natural anomaly and a real trail marker tree.

Do you know of any famous trees in Vernon County? The oldest, the biggest, the only? Let the museum know if you have a good local tree story.

Here are a couple upcoming events to put on your calendar: First, the VCHS will be doing a grill-out at Nelson Agri-Center on Saturday, October 5, from 10AM to 2PM. Volunteers will be serving pulled pork sandwiches, hamburgers, and bratwurst. And then the following Tuesday, October 8, at 7PM, the band Kickapoo Joy Juice will perform an old-time music concert at the historic St. Mary’s Church at 606 West Broadway in Viroqua. More details next week.


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For the week of 9/15/2019
by Carol Krogan, assistant curator

The booklet entitled 75th Retreat Fair – 75 Years of Hometown Pride, published in 1994 is a great resource for the history of Retreat and the Retreat World’s Fair. In it we found the history of the general stores which once served the community. The first store was built in 1868. The second store was built on the west side of the village. It later featured a blacksmith shop and a garage. The third store, depicted in this photo, shows storeowner Wesley Bates around 1900. The store was built in 1898 by Andrew Ramsett for Wesley Bates and John L. Davis. Shortly after, the Woodmen Insurance Society added a hall above the store. Until about 1930, dances, annual meetings and oyster feeds were held in the hall. The Odd Fellows also used the space. Eventually, Bates sold out to Davis and he was the sole owner until the store was sold in 1908 to Ed Vig and Co., of which Melvin Steenberg was a member. Steenberg took over management and within a year purchased the store with two other men, Andrew J. Beat and R. W. Rogerson. For 17 years they ran the store together until Steenberg became sole owner. Steenberg, who was also a mortician, added a room on the back to sell furniture and coffins. He retired in 1945 and for a short time his daughter and son-in-law, Geraldine (Jerre) and Bill Lyngstad operated the store. It was owned briefly by Percy and Gertrude Bohland and in 1949 it was purchased by Wesley and Virginia Sturdevant and Virginia’s sister Olga and her husband Melvin Seymour. They owned the store until August, 1980 when it was purchased by Mansel and Alice (Walleser) Koeller. Mansel and Alice both worked elsewhere to support their family and due to low patronage closed the store on April 1, 1988. For the first time in over 100 years there was no store in Retreat. The building was torn down in 1991.

100 years ago, the first Retreat World’s Fair was held in Retreat, WI. The first fair was held on the grounds next to the present day Retreat Sportsmen’s Club. A bowery, or large wooden stage, was built for dancing. Exhibits included corn and canned goods. In 1928, a Community Hall was built and events and exhibits were held there. They included 4-H exhibits from Retreat and the surrounding area. On September 27 and 28, 2019 a Centennial celebration will be held with special events and exhibits at the Retreat Sportsmen’s Club, which was built in 2003 to replace the original Community Hall. Events include a Trap Shoot and Tractor Pull on Friday night, a Horse Show on Saturday and the famous 2-way parade on Saturday at noon. Retreat is located 10 miles east of De Soto, WI, just off Hwy. 82 on County Road N.

Among the exhibitors in the Sportsmen’s Club will be the Vernon County Historical Society with some period clothing on display. VCHS Board President Maynard Cox will be your host to fill you in on all the happenings at the Vernon County Museum in Viroqua and their other sites, the Sherry Butt House on Main Street and old St. Mary’s Church and the Foreaker School on West Broadway.

Hope to see you there!


The Retreat Store
Wesley Bates is shown in the Retreat Store about 1900.


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The previous two articles:

September 8, 2019

September 1, 2019